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The haunting prescience of ‘Enemy of the State’

Before the Patriot Act, before Edward Snowden, this Will Smith movie was asking important questions

In 1998, Buena Vista Pictures released Enemy of the State, starring Will Smith and Gene Hackman in a prophetic thriller about the dangers of unrestricted government surveillance.

Smith starred as Robert Clayton Dean, a Washington labor attorney who gets unwittingly dragged into a fiasco involving a murdered U.S. congressman, in a tale written by David Marconi and directed by Tony Scott. The congressman, a Republican from Syracuse, New York, named Phillip Hammersley (Jason Robards), is a vocal opponent of a fictional bill known as the “Telecommunications Security and Privacy Act.”

“Invasion of privacy is more like it,” Hammersley grumbles in the film’s opening as National Security Agency (NSA) operative Thomas Brian Reynolds (Jon Voight) tries to lobby him. “Did you read the Post? This bill is not the first step to the surveillance society, it is the surveillance society. I’m not going to sit in Congress and pass a law that lets the government point a camera and a microphone at anything they damn well please.”

It would take 16 years before another work, The Good Wife, would come along that accomplished the task with similar aplomb, and unlike the speculative Enemy of the State, it was ripped directly from the headlines. In 2014, The Good Wife attempted to make sense of a truly wonky and complex subject: The NSA’s wiretapping program known as PRISM.

Thanks to the whistleblowing efforts of Edward Snowden, ordinary Americans learned how easy it was for their private conversations, photos and videos to be swept into a far-reaching intelligence surveillance dragnet, all without their knowledge, much less consent.

The Washington Post explained:

By law, the NSA may “target” only foreign nationals located overseas unless it obtains a warrant based on probable cause from a special surveillance court. For collection under PRISM and Upstream rules, analysts must state a reasonable belief that the target has information of value about a foreign government, a terrorist organization or the spread of nonconventional weapons.

Most of the people caught up in those programs are not the targets and would not lawfully qualify as such. “Incidental collection” of third-party communications is inevitable in many forms of surveillance, but in other contexts the U.S. government works harder to limit and discard irrelevant data. In criminal wiretaps, for example, the FBI is supposed to stop listening to a call if a suspect’s wife or child is using the phone.

The Good Wife episodes were ambitious, timely, charming and topical. They illustrated how PRISM worked in a way that did not suggest the show’s writers were harboring a collection of Reynolds Wrap millinery in a doomsday bunker. What The Good Wife creators Robert and Michelle King accomplished with a basis of real-life reporting, Marconi effectively bottled in a movie script years earlier.

The conflict of Enemy of the State kicks off because Congressman Hammersley chairs a crucial committee. When Reynolds realizes he’ll be a serious obstruction to the bill’s passing, he has Hammersley killed and the scene staged to look as though the congressman suffered a heart attack. But there’s a problem: The omnipresent cameras in American society — the ones people like Reynolds rely on to snoop — also captured Hammersley’s murder.

When Dean’s Georgetown University classmate Daniel Zavitz (Jason Lee) realizes he has a recording of the Hammersley murder, captured by a motion-activated camera intended for monitoring avian migration patterns, he tries to alert a journalist friend. His phone’s been wiretapped and his apartment surrounded, and so Zavitz bails through his apartment’s fire escape with the video saved on a drive. With NSA officials in pursuit, Zavitz passes the drive to Dean minutes before being fatally injured by a fire engine. The NSA then focuses its attention on Dean, who is unaware that he’s in possession of what might as well be the next Zapruder film. And so it goes, with Dean’s cushy life unraveling until he’s forced to go on the run with Edward Lyle (Hackman), a retired intelligence official who offers Dean his only chance at survival.

Looming concerns of unchecked surveillance would show up in two other movie star-fronted releases in 2002: Tom Cruise’s Minority Report and the initial film in the Bourne franchise with Matt Damon. But Enemy of the State occupied a unique role in the genre’s canon: It arrived before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Enemy of the State was free to express skepticism of NSA surveillance before it became taboo, before the nation was frozen by the deadliest terrorist attack to take place on American soil. The fear created by seeing the Pentagon and World Trade Center towers in flames eased the passage of the Patriot Act.

Good Americans — patriots — the logic went, would have no problem submitting to intrusive monitoring into their religious practices, their private phone conversations, even their library records, as long as the trade-off was more effective national security. Or so the thinking went. But there was precedent for skepticism of the benevolence of the federal surveillance apparatus, even before Smith made it sexy. Before the Patriot Act, federal agencies had already established a history of surveilling African Americans, particularly those who were in the thick of the fight for civil rights.

Not only did the FBI wiretap Martin Luther King Jr. under J. Edgar Hoover’s COINTELPRO initiative, which began in 1956, it also monitored black independent booksellers, which Hoover deemed “propaganda outlets for revolutionary and hate publications and culture centers for extremism.” The American intelligence apparatus was responsible for the 1969 murder of activist Fred Hampton in his own apartment. It cast the Black Power movement as an African American equivalent of the Ku Klux Klan, unfairly characterizing it as equally hateful and terroristic in nature.

Those efforts have not subsided, but merely shifted focus. Contempt for black people pursuing the rights guaranteed by American citizenship did not disappear once Hoover was no longer running the FBI. Hoover’s efforts to curtail, in his words, the rise of a “black messiah” have since evolved into the federal government’s infiltration of Black Lives Matter, and the pursuit of so-called “black identity extremists.”

Enemy of the State was able to communicate in a mainstream film what decades of black civil rights activists struggled to do after state officials maligned their credibility: a healthy degree of mistrust toward an intelligence community that had long targeted black people.

Enemy of the State was able to communicate in a mainstream film what decades of black civil rights activists had struggled to do after state officials maligned their credibility: a healthy degree of mistrust toward an intelligence community that had long targeted black people. In Enemy of the State, Smith and Regina King, who played Dean’s wife Carla, were ordinary, relatable, educated, upper-middle-class everyday people, not agitators who had been effectively demonized. Dean’s naivete about the state’s willingness and ability to target someone like him is exactly what makes him sympathetic. Like so many white people who have never experienced anything to make them do otherwise, Dean is fully invested in the idea that his government works to serve him, not run roughshod over his rights because he’s an obstacle to one person’s corrupt goals.

So often in America, the notion that “it can’t happen here” is disproven because it — whatever it is — has already been happening to black people. What’s curious about Enemy of the State is how it demonstrates the enormous and unlikely breadth of Smith’s star power. The points the movie is making, at the expense of one man’s life and credibility, have nothing to do with a race-based pursuit of civil rights. Smith was a black man helming a story with implications easily read as universal. It’s political, but it’s not racially political. (In that regard, it’s an extremely ’90s blockbuster.)

The Deans’ lives were upended and their marriage subjected to an unjustified stress test. NSA agents broke into their home and destroyed it in search of the drive, making the break-in look like the work of teenage delinquents. They manipulated evidence to make it seem like Dean had resumed an affair with a professional liaison, Rachel Banks (Lisa Bonet), igniting the ire of his wife. The government froze all of the Deans’ assets without explanation, making it impossible for them to access legally-earned money they needed for basic living expenses. They endangered the life of the couple’s child in pursuit of evidence that would prove Reynolds’ murderous overreach. And those who carried out Reynolds’ wishes did so with callous impunity. Dean, a respectable, taxpaying American citizen, is left with little recourse but to break the law in order to save his own life.

Will Smith (left) and Lisa Bonet (right) star in 1998’s Enemy of the State.

Buena Vista Pictures/Everett Collection

It’s not until Dean and Lyle get clever and go on the offensive, using the NSA’s own spying equipment against the agency, that Dean has a prayer of wresting his life back from the NSA. Anyone less savvy would have likely died, or simply been disappeared.

In Enemy of the State, the justification for the expansion of surveillance capabilities of men like Reynolds is exactly the pretext for the NSA’s real-life PRISM program that came to light years later: protecting the nation from threats from foreign nationals residing here. The made-up happenings of the film presaged the 2013 revelations for which we have Snowden, The Guardian and The Washington Post to thank: that the NSA was secretly collecting data on innocent and unsuspecting American citizens, with little oversight or regard for privacy. The concerns raised by the film have only become more urgent. On May 11, The Daily Beast reported that an amendment to the renewal of the Patriot Act “will expressly permit the FBI to warrantlessly collect records on Americans’ web browsing and search histories.”

Nearly 20 years before Regina King would star in a series based on a comic that asked: “Who watches the Watchmen?” she provided the voice of informed skepticism for a public accustomed to rolling over for unchecked power in the name of patriotism. In 1998, Carla Dean posed a still-relevant query: “Who monitors the monitors?” And beyond that, “who monitors the monitors of the monitors?”

Soraya Nadia McDonald is the culture critic for The Undefeated. She writes about pop culture, fashion, the arts, and literature. She is the 2020 winner of the George Jean Nathan prize for dramatic criticism, a 2020 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in criticism, and the runner-up for the 2019 Vernon Jarrett Medal for outstanding reporting on black life.